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Published: October 5th 2007
The 'trouble' with travelling is that so much happens all the time, far too much for the purposes of a blog and limited internet access. It's near-impossible to keep a record of everything, all the many impressions, visions, moods that shift and alter and deepen constantly. I am now in St Petersburg, in Russia, in what could be described as the most exclusive Internet Cafe in the world: in the Hermitage, which houses a vast amount of wonderful art from allover the world and from every time span. So much so that you would have to walk 25 km to see everything.
I arrived here in Russia on Wednesday morning by train, after Bart and I sailed through the Belarussian border thanks to our new transit visas. We exchanged our train tickets after much gesticulating in Brest, where nobody, but nobody, speaks any English or any other language, and the alphabet is, of course, cyrillic. Thanks to a kind lady at the train station, we were only charged for another berth reservation, the rest was free due to the hassle we had at the border. Ironically, I ended up on the very train I had been desperately trying to book
from England, but was unable to - the direct train from Brest to St Petersburg. Bart and I said goodbye in Brest on Tuesday afternoon, when he headed to Moscow, and I entered one of those lovely Soviet trains with the pink curtains and four-berth compartments, complete with carpets. Say what you like about them though: they may be old, but they are very functional and sturdy. I was in compartment 9, right at the end of the train, and it seemed like I was the only person occupying the four-berth room. Very pleased, I made my bed and received a little cute pack from the train conductress (with toilet cover, toilet paper, a piece of soap and a picture of a 1871 steam locomotive in it).
I soon realised that my knowledge of European languages is extremely futile here. I went to eat something in the restaurant car, and the friendly Belarussian Babushka on duty didn't speak a word of English, and the menu was in Russian only. She understood 'vegetarian' (just about) and enthusiastically brought me a salad (a nice one, admittedly) and some bread. When I asked for something else, she took me, giggling, to the
kitchen, where the white-haired cook gave me a beaming smile and a huge bear hug, opened his fridge and motioned me to point out the things I'd like. He then proceeded to make me an omelette with potatoes and vegetables - after he had given me another hug and a sloppy kiss on the cheek.
Content, I returned back to my compartment and resolved to study the cyrillic alphabet. Suddenly, the door was yanked open by the train conductress, and in stumbled a drunk man with an uncanny resemblance to the footballer Wayne Roonie, clutching a plastic bag of vodka and beer: my new 'roomie' for the journey. Yikes. He sat down and started a monologue in Russian, whilst continuously offering me vodka, to which I kept replying 'niet!'. As he babbled on in Russian, my first instinct was to change compartments, but then I decided to surrender for a little while and 'see what happens'. So I engaged in a conversation of sorts, him talking in Russian, me in English, showing each other photographs of our parents, comparing passports, and so on. His name was Dmitry, and he was a thirty-year old truck driver who possess the fullest passport I have ever seen. He likes football and drinking, and just shook his head in dismay when I enthused about Dostoevsky and 'The Master and Margarita'. But as the journey progressed, I actually grew quite fond of him - he was a nice guy. We couldn't have been more different but we sort of got used to each other and even exchanged addresses before the end of the journey. After a near-sleepless night, accentuated by Dmitry's snoring, soaring heat from the radiators and constant stopping of the train, there was a classic moment when I had breakfast of bread, jam, fruit and peppermint tea, while Dmitry had coffee with vodka in it, a cigarette and moaned about a massive hangover. When I took out some vitamins, he asked me, interested, 'Are these narcotic substances?' He kindly carried my bags in St Petersburg until I was met by another Dmitry, from HOFA, a homestay organisation who arranged for my room, at the station.
Here, I am staying with a lovely lady called Svetlana in her home near the railway station. Her soups are the best in the world, and she's an academic specialising in Russian literature, in particular Fyodor Dostoevsky, one of my literary heroes. What's more, she lives only a stone's throw from the Dostoevsky house and museum. I spent my first afternoon in St Petersburg trying to buy a train ticket to Moscow. After a first futile attempt, realising they really don't speak any English here (and indeed, why should they?), I wrote out on a piece of paper - in Russian letters, thanks to my guidebook - something like 'one ticket to Moscow, one way, sitting compartment, on x day at x time - please!' To my relief, I was understood and successfully bought the ticket! I have since rapidly begun to learn Russian phrases. I spent another day mastering the metro system, which, once you get used to the cyrillic alphabet, is actually very simple. They only have four lines here - which seems woefully inadequate for such a big city. I have never seen metro stations that full, and fast, not even during London rush hour - being on the metro during St Petersburg rush hour is indeed an experience.
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